By George Ferguson
The days are getting shorter and the air is getting cooler and that can mean only one thing in Havre it's time for another year of Havre Blue Pony football.
Everything gets under way this Saturday with a huge nonconference tilt between the Ponies and Western Conference archrival Whitefish at Blue Pony Stadium.
The Ponies are coming off a 2001 season that saw them finish 5-3 in the regular season and narrowly miss out on the Class A playoffs. Third-year head coach Troy Purcell couldn't be more excited or optimistic to get things under way.
"I'm very excited and very confident coming into this season. We've had a good couple of weeks of practice and we are a very fired-up team right now," Purcell said. "We've got a group of kids with great attitudes and great work ethic."
The Ponies suffered some key losses at several positions like all-state and all-conference running back/linebacker Kevin Harada and quarterback Danny Wirtzberger, but the biggest holes to fill will be on the lines, where Purcell says his troops lost a lot of size and experience.
"We're pretty new up front," Purcell said. "Basically we have Tyson Roe and Buck Christofferson back to give us some experience, but other than that we're pretty inexperienced up there."
The Ponies do have several key ingredients in place to make a push for that conference title. Fullback/linebacker Levi Briese is back as well as cornerback Steve Heberly and quarterback/free safety Justin Kegel.
"We have some very good athletes on this team and we're a very quick team," Purcell said. "One of our objectives will be to try to make teams throw the ball because our corners are fast and they can stay with anybody.
"Our big key to this season is we are going to have to improve every week. We can't stay the same," Purcell said. "Last season we had great games against Whitefish and Sidney but we didn't keep improving at times."
Whitefish will undoubtedly be seeking some revenge. Havre went into Whitefish last year and soundly defeated the Bulldogs 28-17 in the 2001 season opener. The Bulldogs, led by veteran head coach Mike Ferda, went on to finish second in the state last season, losing to Lewistown 12-9 in the state title game. They are once again predicted to battle for another state title.
"Whitefish is always tough," Purcell said. "They're a big physical team and they are always strong in the trenches."
Purcell also thinks the Bulldogs have a lot of speed on the offensive side of the ball.
"We went and watched their scrimmage and they have some tremendous athletes and a lot of speed in the backfield," Purcell said. "They will definitely test our defense."
The Bulldogs, like the Ponies, lost several key players to graduation and also lost talented junior quarterback Tucker Ferda to a spring ankle injury that he hasn't fully recovered from. But they return a solid group of linemen and some speedy backs and receivers.
Purcell said the big keys for this contest will be special teams and minimal mistakes.
"We have to keep the mental mistakes to a minimum and not make turnovers," Purcell said. "And our special teams have got to be solid right away and give our offense good field position and not put our defense in any holes.
"We're going to come out and play hard and utilize our skill players so we should be OK, but it is definitely going to be a battle," Purcell added.
The battle kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday at Blue Pony stadium.